Politics Blog

Whatcom councilor contrite after appearing at coal event

Among the handful of guests at a presentation Tuesday morning, June 16, about the economic impacts of Gateway Pacific Terminal was an unexpected face: Whatcom County Council member Satpal Sidhu.

I say unexpected because County Council members as a rule avoid events related to the proposed coal port at Cherry Point. County attorneys advised council members years ago to limit as much as possible the information they receive about the terminal project. Council has instructed the public it may not speak about the terminal during the public comment portion of its meetings.

“Even our emails are getting scanned, before we get GPT stuff,” Council Chairman Carl Weimer said in a phone interview Tuesday.

After being informed by this reporter after the presentation about the restrictions on County Council members, Sidhu said he was not aware of this rule. Either it was never told to him, he said, or he didn’t absorb it. He said he was fed a lot of information after his appointment to the council on March 17. Council members selected Sidhu to replace Sam Crawford, who resigned before the end of his term.

Weimer said he couldn’t say whether Sidhu got the talk about “hear no evil, see no evil” when it comes to the coal terminal.

“We appointed him, and he’s not in the regular cycle (of council member orientation),” Weimer said. “He missed some of the briefings.”

For example, Weimer said, Sidhu tried to strike up a discussion with other council members via email, until it was explained to him that this practice violated the Open Public Meetings Act.

Satpal apologized immediately after learning that showing up at the presentation might have been a misstep.

“If I did something wrong, I’m sorry,” Sidhu said. He attended the presentation at the Leopold retirement home, hosted by Communitywise Bellingham, to learn more about the project because it was a major issue of concern in the community, he said. The report, written by The PFM Group, was negative toward Gateway Pacific Terminal, asserting that it may pose a threat to the bread and butter of Whatcom’s economy, which is its outdoor amenities.

“I don’t want to just appear, I really want to be objective and listen to both sides,” Sidhu said.

What could be the consequence of Sidhu’s appearance at the GPT presentation?

If one side or the other perceives a conflict of interest or even access to biased information, it could compromise a council member’s ability to vote on a permit for the terminal — if and when that time ever comes. The only information they are allowed to consider is items on the public record.

“Basically, we’ve been warned to use extreme caution (on the coal terminal) because eventually whichever side people are on, we’re going to get challenged on it,” Weimer said.

“I think there’s ways it can be taken care of. I’ll be sure he gets the same briefing the rest of us have,” Weimer said. “The main problem is, we don’t want council members getting information the rest of council didn’t see. Whatever he attended, there may be a way to capture that and make it public record.”

The presentation concerned the PFM report, which is posted on Communitywise Bellingham’s website.

“There’s s a difference of opinion about how careful we need to be,” Weimer added. Advice has been as extreme as, “As soon as you hear ‘coal,’ run the other direction” — a policy Weimer doesn’t adhere to.

“You don’t want to show up at events that are all one-sided,” Weimer said. “The best best thing is to stay away from all of it, and no one will challenge you.”

Sidhu situation may not be clear, Weimer said, because he is a candidate in this year’s elections for the office he was appointed to three months ago.

“When you’re a candidate a lot of that stuff doesn’t actually apply,” Weimer said.